Beware the terrorist lurking in your bookcase: are British citizens being prosecuted for thought crimes?

Britain's counter-terrorism laws are becoming more sweeping and powerful. They are beginning to criminalise not only what we do, but also what we say and think.

Richard McNeil Willson
1 December 2014
Das Kapital

"Ideological propaganda"? Flickr/Buds Untitled. Some rights reserved.On November 17, after a secret Old Bailey trial, it was announced that Erol Incedal had been convicted of possessing a bomb-making manual. During the four-week process, the public and press were excluded, and those in attendance were prohibited from reporting what they had seen or heard. The event was shrouded in such secrecy that even the reasons for keeping the trial secret were kept secret. What is perhaps most interesting about the case is that Mr. Incedal was charged under UK law for possessing articles “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. 

What exactly does this mean? According to section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offence to “possess an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that this possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism”. This is not confined to materials used directly in violent acts but can include more abstract objects. For instance, in the 2007 case of R v Zafar and others, five individuals were convicted for possession of documents, computer discs and drives containing material described as being “radical”, “religious or philosophical” and “ideological propaganda” (the ruling was subsequently overturned by the Appeal Court).  

I browse my bookcase to see what I can find that could match this description, producing Marx’s “Das Kapital”, a South African pamphlet on how to prepare a leaflet bomb, the book ‘Hamas’ by Jeroen Gunning, and “War on Terror”, a (rather brilliant) board game. I then conduct a similar search through my hard drive and find – to my surprise – a “Ranger Training Handbook” from a US Army Infantry School, and a leaflet entitled “Basic Food Preparation in Military Combat”. To be honest, I’m not really sure where these came from – I’m prone to downloading swathes of articles without too much thought – but am pleased to know I’m well prepared to survive any wilderness during a crisis situation. That is, at least, for as long as my Macbook battery holds out. 

A "purpose connected with terrorism"

In “Possession of Articles” (2008), lawyer Graham Virgo makes the point that this legislation is problematic because the degree of “remoteness” the item has to a potential act of terrorism is poorly defined: “a purpose connected with” an act of terrorism could include a plane ticket to Pakistan, a credit card used to book the flight, or even the defendant’s passport. As such, he concludes, “are we not getting perilously close to criminalising thought crimes?”

I add my bank cards to the pile of incriminating objects, whilst simultaneously concluding that any terrorist plot attempted using my bank cards would have to be on such a tight budget that it would resemble less a major incident and more an episode of Blue Peter that got out of hand. My passport also joins the assortment. 

Sections 58 and 58A of the 2000 Act are perhaps even more problematic, conferring less importance on intentionality. It is an offence to “collect or make a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”, or if (s)he “possesses a document or record containing information of that kind”. This specifically includes photographic or electronic records, as well as the computer, which can have a variety of purposes in collecting and containing ‘radical’ literature. 

I triumphantly balance my computer on the collection. Ambling around the room, I also start to consider other items that could be demonstrative of a potential for “radicalisation”. A “Free Palestine” poster? Possibly. A map of the British Isles? I’m not sure. Definitely my twitter account, on which I am often to be found ranting and raving about the shortcomings of contemporary western democratic systems and advocating extreme constitutional change. I suspect that I’m becoming facetious – not to mention paranoid – so I tidy everything back up as before.

Good and bad radicals

I am not making light of terrorism, nor pretending that no threat exists. I do however wish to point out that, in spite of being potentially vulnerable to terror-related charges, I do not face the fear that this will materialise. This is not because Mr. Incedal should presently be considered a threat to society – whether he was planning an attack remains to be seen, as the jury failed to reach a charge on the accusation of preparing acts of terrorism. Instead, the difference between me and Mr. Incedal is that I am what Jonathan Githens-Mazer terms a “good radical”, rather than a “bad radical”. 

As a society, Githens-Mazer writes, we like challenges to some things but believe challenges to others to be an existential risk to the continued functioning and existence of society. Whilst it is accepted that the system can – and indeed, should – be challenged in some ways, other ways are off limits. The “bad radical” challenges these red lines and is therefore prone to “radicalisation”. Who exactly these bad radicals are is also highlighted in Githens-Mazer’s 2012 study, in which he examines books, journal articles, government papers and documents, working papers and think-tank reports, and publicly available postgraduate theses that are of direct relevance to the study of radicalisation, and finds a clear bias in which 63 percent refer to “Islam”, “Islamism”, “Muslim”, “jihad”, “al-Qaeda” or “Salafi-Wahhabism” in the title, and 73 percent refer exclusively to radicalisation with reference to Muslims or Islam, or both. British policy reflects this bias, showcasing a “Prevent” strategy based on tackling the radical ideology of al Qaeda above all else. 

Put very simply, the difference between the good and the bad radical is therefore demonstrated, more often than not, in the difference between Mr. Incedal and myself – I am not a Muslim, whilst Mr. Incedal is. This is a depressingly familiar story, with numerous incidences of Muslims undergoing racial and religious profiling, in spite of no evidence that Muslims are more susceptible to conducting terrorism, and evidence that such profiling is more likely to encourage political disaffection. Meanwhile, those in the mainstream have nothing to worry about – a number of students in one of the classes I teach, for instance, admitted recently downloading material for research that could be seen as ‘radical’. Generally hailing from a majority background, I doubt they will be receiving any special attention from the British security forces any time soon.  

We need to be careful of the law, especially when it attempts to operate within the discursively unstable confines of the “war on terror” and its ill-conceived child, “radicalisation”. We need to be aware that being “radical” is a highly subjective term, and that it is problematic for British citizens to be judged on the potentiality of their threat. And we need to be concerned when any British citizen is tried and convicted based solely on owning a book. Under current UK law, then, perhaps we should be less scared of the potential terrorist lurking in our midst, and more concerned with the legislation that criminalises British citizens on the basis of their bookcase.

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